Every morning, when a South African gets up, he opens his paper and turns on the news to be told once again that the rest of the world thinks his country stinks. Today is no different -- there is the usual assortment of items. At the U.N., they are trying to keep the International Monetary Fund from making a loan to South Africa; in England, resistance has developed to Princess Anne's even making a pit stop here on a tour in furtherance of some good cause; the Greek government intends to discipline officials who let South African military equipment into an Athens arms show, and 14 Sri Lankan cricketers who agreed to play here have been dubbed "lepers" by their own government and told that they will receive "the worst possible punishment." South Africa, which has perfected the cruel custom of "banning" its less favored dissidents -- that is, officially isolating and ostracizing them -- is itself being "banned."

Cosmically fitting as this may be, the question still arises: does the unrelieved hostility help or hurt? Does it make people dig in or does it encourage change? A visitor here must reply that in the face of a general sense of besiegement, it seems to do some of each. Plenty of white South Africans, especially among the Afrikaners who run the place, say: fight. Others, including many in government and big business, say: deal. By "deal" they seem to mean making the kinds of concessions Prime Minister P. W. Botha and Co. have offered with a view to dulling the edges of opposition, preempting the terror all sense may be coming, buying themselves time and conceivably even survival.

The conflict between those who wish to fight and those who wish to deal is the central feature of Afrikaner Nationalist Party politics just now. A strong conservative, antigovernment movement has taken root. It is led by a fallen-away Nationalist Cabinet member, Andries Treurnicht, and 16 former (also fallen away) members of the government's parliamentary majority. Hard as this will be for you even to imagine, there is then another party to the right of Dr. Treurnicht. It is led by a man named Jaap Marais who, at the drop of a hat, will explain to you how the Treurnicht conservatives are squishy soft on such issues as the integration of South African team sport. Generally speaking, both these "fight" parties favor a kind of shooting-their-way-out-of-the-siege approach: be tougher in the wars to the north; make apartheid more strict, not less so; the whites have the power -- use it.

Taken together, these two parties got 61 percent of the vote in a recent by-election, and this plus other evidence of the movement's strength seems to have psyched out the Botha government. Some people think the threat is overstated. But, as appears to be the case with hard-core, right-wing reaction movements everywhere, this one has taken on the image of one of those sea monsters on the medieval maps, thought to be out there waiting to devour anything imprudent enough to fall over the edge. Whenever a government policy choice is discussed or the meaning of some conflict is assayed, whether your interlocutor thinks the outcome will be good or bad, he seems almost invariably to conclude -- morosely: "Of course, it will be good for Treurnicht."

Naturally, the government, fearful itself, also exploits the fear. "If you think we're bad," it says, in effect, "wait till you see what's waiting in the wings. You know why we can't do more. For God's sake get on board and help us while there's time." On this basis the government seeks to command both support for its own stately-pace reforms and indulgence of its own occasional backsliding. Most important, it also seeks in this way to allay anxieties that its own moves to ameliorate the racial laws that control every aspect of life in this country are merely expedient rear-guard actions meant to preserve the basic apartheid system, not over time to end it.

Some argue that the party split has opened the way to true debate among Afrikaners themselves, and this is good. But a visitor here can also see the evidence of the argument's insidious, disruptive effect. For certain whites -- the liberals, the troubled, the conscience-ridden -- and for the brave black leaders of the resistance, who themselves come in many political forms, it has added a heavy new pressure in the matter that endlessly concerns them anyhow: how much to work within the system and how much to thwart, reject or defy it. These are the gut issues, bearing as they do on the leaders' responsibility toward their silent constituents, and they already tear the opposition apart. They are the issues that have made it impossible for a Chief Buthelezi and a Nthato Motlana to work at the same table, even though both are brilliant, articulate opponents of the system.

The "Treurnicht factor," so powerful here at the moment, makes their dilemma worse. The tactical dithering it generates takes the place of any thought for strategy, and it argues for a false solution. It puts the Botha people in an illusory "middle" between the so-called "extremists," implying as this treacherous clich,e always does, that irrespective of moral issues, the center is a place of moderation to which the responsible and the sane must repair.

A week or two in this country -- viewing the pass laws and the pass court in action, the brutal imposition of servility, the 100,000 person refuse-dumplike "resettlement centers" to which blacks are forcibly removed -- will persuade you otherwise. The system is not salvageable, let alone perfectible. It is built around an abominable central idea, and I have found Afrikaners themselves who assert that the country's salvation and their own subculture's problematical long-term survival can only begin with an open acknowledgment of this fact. This is not so different from the requirement that the Palestinians and other Arabs acknowledge Israel's right as a nation to exist: that will not begin to resolve the genuine complexities of the problem, but it will at least make it possible to try.

One thinks of Sadat and de Gaulle, leaders who, for all their faults, were big and audacious enough to risk the fury and even armed combat of their own Treurnichts to try to compel their countrymen off a moral mistake and a no-win collision course with history. I keep wondering if there is such a man here.